An exhibit devoted to the project that replaces of the Alaskan Way Viaduct has generated some controversy over government expenditure. Guest columnists Charles Royer and Kevin Daniels say the law requires such a treatment because of its effect on historic Pioneer Square.
TIMES columnist Danny Westneat on Wednesday asked, “Why is our state opening a viaduct museum, of all things, in Pioneer Square?” He suggested it might be just another example of government waste. Pork.
There’s a better answer, but as often happens with the federal laws Westneat failed to mention, it is not necessarily a more satisfying answer, just a more complete one.
Empty storefronts don’t help neighborhoods. Neither do dust, noise, traffic congestion, lost parking or any of the other inconveniences associated with major construction.
The Pioneer Square neighborhood — registered as both a national and local historic district — will be exposed to plenty of construction-related nuisances over the next several years as crews replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
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Fortunately, the project offers the neighborhood more than a multi-year headache. In the long term, it offers an opportunity to reconnect Pioneer Square to Seattle’s waterfront by removing the old viaduct. And thanks to Milepost 31, a new information center opened by the state to highlight the Highway 99 tunnel project and the neighborhood, it also offers Pioneer Square something very valuable in the short term — a reason for people to visit.
The tunnel project is unique, something to marvel at. Beginning in 2013, a five-story tall machine will dig the world’s largest-diameter bored tunnel in Pioneer Square’s backyard. While this kind of extreme engineering may not interest everyone, it will certainly interest many people. And if it brings them to Pioneer Square for a few hours to visit Milepost 31, learn about tunneling and the neighborhood’s history, browse shops, and grab lunch at a nearby restaurant, the neighborhood will be better off.
That was the whole idea behind Milepost 31 — to use the uniqueness of the tunnel project to draw people to Pioneer Square. The people, once there, would help support neighborhood businesses during construction.
Milepost 31’s development was not an act of whimsy by the Washington State Department of Transportation. It was a fulfillment of the state’s federally required obligation. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires agencies to take into account the effects of their projects on historic properties, such as those in the Pioneer Square Historic District. To comply with Section 106, the state was required to enter into negotiations with Pioneer Square advocates and preservation organizations, and agree on ways to offset the impacts of construction in the neighborhood.
Plans to manage traffic, coordinate construction and protect historic buildings were part of the solution, but the centerpiece is Milepost 31. Neighbors have made great strides to improve Pioneer Square in recent years, and those of us charged with sustaining that effort and protecting the neighborhood’s history felt that an information center to attract visitors was an essential piece to the state meeting its mitigation requirement under federal law. It’s the best way to honor Pioneer Square’s history and illustrate all the good things the neighborhood has to look forward to after the viaduct is gone.
Which brings us back to empty storefronts. The state of the economy has made them more abundant in recent years than anyone would like, and Pioneer Square, like other neighborhoods, has seen its share. We’re confident that removing the viaduct will help us fill them up. In the meantime, we’re thankful that the state filled one of those storefronts with Milepost 31.
Though it’s only been open a few days, Milepost 31 has already generated buzz in the neighborhood. People are talking about the exhibits, learning about the project and discovering the great things that Pioneer Square has to offer. Fittingly, history is once again being made in Seattle’s first neighborhood. We invite you to come down and see it for yourself.
Charles Royer and Kevin Daniels are co-chairs of the Alliance for Pioneer Square. Royer is a former Seattle mayor and Daniels is president of Daniels Development.